Outside looking in
I was one of those who followed the 2008 US elections with a passion, believing along with much of the world that it was a historic moment not just for Americans but for humanity. And I was one of those who thrilled to Barack Obama’s soaring words, “Change has come to America,” after he won over John McCain, punctuating how vast and fast the change has taken place in his inauguration speech when he told the story of how his father couldn’t even get into some places during his time. There was reason for the world to hope a new day had dawned. There was reason for the world to rejoice a new way had come.
The hope turned out to be fool’s gold. The dawn turned out to be streaks of light from bombs exploding in the distance. I look at the US elections today, and I find it to be a choice not between light and shadow but between black and gray. The only reason I hope Obama wins—a thing he himself has done much to subvert by pulling a disappearing act in the first debate—is not that he’s so much better than Mitt Romney but that he poses a little less harm to the world. Romney scares the s–t out of me, as he does the world.
Of course only the American voters can do something about it, but that too is what scares the s–t out of me. It’s not just Philippine elections that have an air of unreality about them, the US elections do too. Probably more so: At least the subtext of Philippine elections is that they are a comedy, the subtext of American elections is that they are perfectly serious. When in fact they show a country and people that are living in a twilight zone, indulging in a separate reality.
Nothing reveals it more than two unquestioned assumptions in the elections.
The first is that the United States remains what Obama calls “the indispensable nation,” the duly recognized leader of the world, the moral compass of the universe. Obama isn’t as bad as Romney in pushing this case. He has criticized the Iraq War and Romney for supporting it during Dubya’s time. And during the third debate, when Romney kept harping on his defensive, or apologetic, stance on terrorism, he kept emphasizing the need for an international consensus under the auspices of the United Nations to undertake any global action, as opposed to unilateralism, or America going alone, as when it invaded Iraq, the façade of the “coalition of the willing” that Romney favors, notwithstanding.
Romney is far more brazen, insisting also at the third debate that America, like love, means never having to say you’re sorry. In the past, he said, America has been a liberating presence in the world. He means to restore it to that proud, or prideful, station if, or when, he becomes president. He would punish China for being a currency cheat and prevent Iran from building a nuclear capability at all costs.
Doubtless this is a natural pitch to the American voter, no presidential candidate is ever going to admit that the American conduct in the world has been less than exemplary. That’s a kiss of death. But you have to wonder if the candidates themselves do not believe it fervently, if to varying degrees. Certainly you have to wonder if the American people themselves do not believe it fervently, if to varying degrees too.
That perception clashes with the rest of the world’s. Except for the Philippines, which continues to see itself as an extension of America, thereby earning not just the scorn of its neighbors but of America itself; most countries do not adore America, they are in deathly fear of it. Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Prize winner for peace and as much a living legend as Nelson Mandela, showed what the world thinks of America as the world’s moral compass when he called for George W. Bush and Tony Blair to be brought before the International Criminal Court in the Hague to “answer for their actions.”
“The then-leaders of the US and UK fabricated the grounds to behave like playground bullies and drive us further apart. They have driven us to the edge of a precipice where we now stand—with the specter of Syria and Iran before us.” For Romney and even Obama to imagine that God gave them the manifest destiny to civilize the world with krag or drone, that is a separate reality.
The second is that the United States can be brought back to its former economic supremacy depending on who wins the elections. That’s the bigger illusion. What’s strange about the debates in fact is that despite Romney’s repeated onslaughts about the economy having taken a dive during Obama’s time, with record unemployment rates, Obama has never countered with, “Ever hear of something called the Wall Street Crash?” In fact, whoever wins the elections, Obama or Romney or anybody else, will never bring the US economy to what it was in Ronald Reagan’s or Bill Clinton’s time.
The Wall Street Crash signaled something much deeper than mere bad economic policies, even of the Bush administration with its penchant for wars and invasions. It signaled the end of an era: making money by money, or making money by financial calisthenics. Over the past two decades in particular, much of wealth no longer represented something tangible, as in a product. Wealth has been wealth because people consider it wealth. The bubble burst in a far explosive way than the housing boom, or subprime, did—it burst in that a crystal palace built on an imagined reality crashed. Right now, the US dollar, which is stretched out more thinly as a cancerous patient, given the mind-boggling scale of the American debt, has no value other than what countries, out of conscription or fear of a global economic collapse, deem it to be. All it really takes now is for a kid to shout, “The emperor is wearing no clothes!”
Outside looking in, it’s unreal, the American elections.